Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Reviewed – 26th June 2018
“Jacob Trenerry’s Kafka is particularly convincing “
In Prague in 1919, Franz Kafka tells his friend Max Brod that he is dying. He’s said this before, as Max points out, but this time he means it and he has a dying wish. Kafka asks Max to burn his life’s works and Max promises to do so. Meanwhile, in 1980s suburbia, Sydney is writing an article on his beloved Kafka, though he is more interested in Kafka’s life than Kafka’s works. Sydney and Kafka have a lot in common after all, careers in insurance and a dislike of their own names, for example. He is justifiably shocked therefore, when Max Brod, Franz Kafka and later Hermann Kafka turn up at his front door, but not as shocked as Kafka when he realises the extent of his fame, the volumes of his own work (none of which were burnt) and the volumes of work about him, both about his literary achievements and about the size of his penis.
Alan Bennett’s text is witty, intelligent and investigative. He asks questions about literary fame, and the way that authors are remembered in a fun and accessible way that escalates as it progresses.
Philip Ley’s set design is lovely, a backdrop of slanting white book shelves filled with red and black volumes, sandwiched by the front and back of a white car. The effect is simultaneously striking yet minimal.
The cast are predominantly strong and work well together. Peter Novis potters in and out as ‘Father’, a bumbling comic figure veiling a sad, confused elderly man, desperately committing to memory the facts of Kafka’s life in a vein attempt to avoid being taken away. Witty and poignant at once, this is a grounding line of humanity even as the play escalates. Jacob Trenerry’s Kafka is particularly convincing and treads well the border between Bennett’s colliding worlds of realism and absurdity.
There are some clumsy moments, but I’m sure these will be ironed out as the run continues. There are also some issues with pace that occasionally leave moments of humour falling flat. The pace is essential, because the play is so reliant on this being consistently built up so that the lift-off into the complete absurdity of the finish can be achieved successfully. A more slick performance with a greater emphasis on creating this momentum would really help the piece achieve its full potential.
Fun, irreverent and increasingly absurd, Bennett is a fantastic writer and this production delivers his work with commitment and wit.
Reviewed by Amelia Brown
Photography by Robert Piwko
Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 30th June
Previously reviewed at this venue